You Can’t Stop Stepford!

In this 3rd entry in my Horror Month movie binging, I want to talk about two movies that scream for context. By 1975, through consciousness raising, bra burning, and symbolic jettisoning of razor blades, feminists were scaring men. In 2004, the United States had walked into Iraq under what was later known to be political fabrication, Lance Armstrong won his 6th Tour de France—later known to be the result of illegal doping, and the U.K. banned fox hunting.

Also, in 1975, The Stepford Wives was released, adapted from Ira Levin’s suburban thriller. In 2004 the film was remade by Frank Oz, aka Miss Piggy and Cookie Monster. Before starting my review, opinion, and serialized listing of facts, I need to disclose that I had not seen the remake until today because one of my failings is that I sometimes form opinions without knowing the facts.

Stepford Wives ’75 is a good candidate for Horror Month. The film introduces a New York couple who move to the Connecticut suburbs with their two children. Joanna, mother and would-be photographer, left out of her husband’s decision to debark Manhattan, is disquieted and mournful. As a boilerplate troubled-couple film, Stepford Wives is B movie criteria. But hints of danger are expressed in her husband’s eyes, Joanna’s sketched portrait in which the husbands show great interest, the wives’ bizarre behavior. William Goldman’s (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) bewitching script propelled the film into a box office bonanza.

I really enjoyed Stepford ’04. Frank Oz added generous doses of comedy. Glenn Close and Christopher Walken portray Stepford’s leading citizens, Nicole Kidman’s Joanna is an obsessed, ambitious television producer who has been fired for over-hyping a reality program with mortal consequences, and Matthew Broderick is her ever-suffering husband. Both films follow Joanna as she tries to unravel the mysteries of Stepford and unwittingly walks into her own unpleasant destiny.

Oz has freshened the bleak inevitability of Stepford ’75. Similarities are obnoxious male privilege and over-sexualized women, but the malicious mind behind the science differs in Stepford ’04 in a significant and satisfying way. The science itself is updated with the use of bionics, rather than murder followed by replication. Also, the outcome of Oz’s version is, of course, not the inevitable triumph of men over women as in ’75, but the triumph of women over men.

Levin’s novel is described as satirical science fiction. I read the book, but I don’t remember it well. Stepford ’74 has been stripped of satire and mired down in depressive futility. The satire has been re-infused into the ’04 film with delightful glee, and a generous dose of black humor. Oz also gets to exercise his puppetry chops in the CGI creation of a robot dog.

I was going to title this blog “How did we get to Stepford?”, but the chant from the ’04 film, when the only gay couple undergo the Stepford change, seems preciously appropriate. The question is still valid. Catch-phrases like “white male privilege”, “Incel” and the “manosphere” populate Internet speech in increasing numbers. I argue that the executive branch of today’s elected president has shown a big green Go sign to misogynous trolls. Watch both movies. Re-read Levin’s book, along with Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys and Maya Angelou. Follow the history of female whistle blowers who were ignored and disrespected before MeToo.

Perhaps the real horror is that women can never, ever, be complacent.

Happy Halloween. Next week I tackle classic ghost fiction: The Turn of the Screw.

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About Jill Zeller

The author of numerous short stories and novels, Jill Zeller lives near Seattle, Washington, with her patient and adoring husband, two English mastiffs, and one self-centered tuxedo cat. Her works explore the boundaries of reality. Some may call it fantasy, but there are rarely swords and never elves. More to the point, she prefers to write as if myth, imagination and hallucination were as real as the chair she is sitting on as she writes this. Maybe it is because she was raised as a Christian Scientist. Jill Zeller also writes under the pseudonym Hunter Morrison

Comments

You Can’t Stop Stepford! — 6 Comments

    • True. Bras were thrown in the trash at the Miss America pageant. Draft cards were burned (a few of them, anyway). But I wouldn’t call it fake news as much as an earlier version of a meme, one that was intended to mock feminism but one that was also relished by a lot of women eager for change. I never burned a bra, but I did stop wearing them (oh, bliss).

  1. I have never been able to bring myself to watch The Stepford Wives. I don’t think I could even watch the updated version even if it is obviously satire, and your description of the original as “mired in depressive futility” confirms my decision to skip it. That reality was all around me when I was a kid and I can still feel my mother’s anger at it.

    But your analysis is excellent and I appreciate it.

  2. I remember reading the book (Levin had a real focus on wives turned on by their husbands in service of their agendas–Rosemary’s Baby is Stepford with fantasy rather than science). It was billed as satire, but as an SF reader it fell pretty firmly into the “if this goes on” tradition, and I recall nothing particularly cheery about its ending.

    I never saw the remake of the film–I was up to my hips in kids at the time it came out, and somehow it didn’t go to the top of the “must see” list. Now I’m curious.

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